Overthinking Cowboy Bebop:  Sessions 1-5

Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Sessions 1-5

Episodes one through five. Come for the overthinking, stay for the woman with a turtle on her head.

2)  Stray Dog Strut

Not cool, guys.

Not cool, guys.

The Bounty of the Week is Abdul Hakim, a serial pet thief.  He’s stolen Ein, an extremely valuable “Data Dog” – if you’re confused, don’t worry, because I checked wikipedia and they NEVER explain what this means – and as a result there’s a whopping price on his head.  Spike and Jet don’t get the bounty, but they do wind up holding the dog.  Who is apparently worth millions.  And they know this.  But selling him never occurs to them.  So apparently Ein can control people’s minds?   I dunno, he is pretty cute.  This episode has tons of weirdly specific references to the Bruce Lee movie Game of Death – also known as “The one where Bruce fights Kareem Abdul Jabbar.”  There’s also a weird, grating moment where Abdul Hakim’s ethnicity is referred to as “Negloid,” which I guess is less problematic to the original Japanese audience, but to Americans reads as a kind of recursively racist combination plate of insensitive description of African heritage and insensitive depiction of Japanese accent. On the bright side, it also contains my favorite supporting character so far, who I call “Turtle-head-black-market-pet-store-lady.”

turtle head

Not only is Abdul Hakim a full time pet thief, this woman is apparently a full time pet fence. In space.

3)  Honky-Tonk Woman

At the casino, Spike wanders past a movie screening.  I include this image here because I think it's cool; I rather expect that this is also why they included it there.

At the casino, Spike wanders past a movie screening. I include this image here only because I think it's cool; I rather expect that this is also why they included it there.

Here we meet Faye Valentine.  All we learn about her so far is that she’s good at cards and cultivates an air of mystery, because already in this first appearance we hear two flatly contradictory accounts of what her deal is.  She’s in deep with the mobbed-up owner of a deep space casino, who is using her to facilitate the turnover of a secret encryption key hidden inside a poker chip carried by a courier with the same hair color and same one suit that Spike always wears by… aaaaAAAAGH! so okay, you’re seeing what I mean about parts of this show not making any damn sense.  The mafia guys want the encryption key to be turned over in the course of a poker game to avoid attracting attention, so presumably it’s incriminating for them to ever be in the same room as the courier.  But they have no problem kidnapping, torturing, and whacking said courier when the deal doesn’t go down as planned?  And rather than just have the guy bet the chip on something and lose, they plan for him to start gambling, win huge, blow everything but the chip on one last hand, and then offer it to the dealer as a tip?  And then, rather than use their most trusted dealer for this plan, they use a notoriously unreliable outsider that they brought in because of her quasi-mystical skill at cards – quasi-mystical skill which, remember, is totally useless because the guy isn’t even supposed to bet the chip in the first place?  What. Ev. Er.  Credit where it’s due, though, the climax – where our heroes make a failed and double-crossy attempt to sell the chip back to the mobsters – is a tremendous set piece, with some seriously excellent zero-gee choreography and another badass hard-driving jazz cue to go with it.  At the end, the mobsters blow up their own ship. Faye waltzes off with the money, because in this episode she’s a guest character:  one episode later she will join the Bebop’s crew, and never succeed at anything ever again. Spike and Jet end up with the chip, but rather than sell it and become millionaires, they decide to just get rid of it, presumably because the technology is too dangerous to fall into the wrong hands.  Specifically, they decide to hide the chip by wandering into another casino and betting it on roulette.  Which is poetic, but — if you’re really committed to keeping the technology out of the wrong hands — like, really, unbelievably stupid when compared to other options such as flinging the chip into the pitiless vacuum of space, or into the sun, or hell, just smashing it with a hammer.  Yeah, what better place to lose a chip than in a casino, I know, but if space casinos are anything like the Vegas kind, those chips are all labeled, so finding the encryption chip is less like looking for a needle in a haystack and more like looking for a needle marked “Luxor” in a pile of hay that’s all marked “Caesar’s Palace.”
Okay, so this was not my favorite episode.  But Faye’s an interesting character, and I guess they had to introduce her somehow.  Musically, this one is noteworthy because it introduces a little honky-tonk piano tag that will keep coming back in one guise or another in almost every episode from now on.  This is important enough that I might even transcribe it for you in a later post, but I’ve got other things on my mind this week, so let’s move on.

12 Comments on “Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Sessions 1-5”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Hooray, more Bebop posts written by Stokes! A fine combination. Here are my random thoughts, in no particular order:

    -I have to say, the first time I saw the show, I didn’t understand why Asteroid Blues was the first episode. The tone seemed different to me (yes, more nihilistic) than the usual episodes of the show, which are a mix of wackiness and cleverly staged fight scenes. This episode had the clever fight scene but not the wackiness.

    Having seen the whole show, I can now say that Asteroid Blues IS the correct first episode. The parallels between it and the last episode are really interesting, for one thing. You say in your post that the first four wacky episodes of Bebop are the main theme, and the dark fifth episode is the counterpoint. I could also see it the other way around. The nihilism and darkness of the 1st and 5th episodes are the main theme, and the wackiness in between is the filler. Fun filler for sure (you still haven’t got up to the wacky drug comedy/blaxploitation episode or the wacky terrorist episode), but still filler, in a way.

    -I think you brought up an interesting question about how much Bebop is a deconstruction of an anime/action show versus just a plain anime/action show. Or is it a sort of deconstructed reconstruction? I need to think about this more before I can answer.

    -What I do think is different about Bebop in comparison to most other anime shows I’ve seen – and incredibly frustrating sometimes, especially later in the series – is, as you said, the amount the writers hold back. This is the only anime TV show I can think of (besides, of course, Evangelion) where there is more subtext than text-text. Compare Bebop to, say, Dragon Ball, and you will see what I mean. The characters in most anime shows, even the good ones like the aforementioned Evangelion, spend a lot of time talking about their feelings to one another, or at least to the audience. Bebop is unique -and, again, sometimes incredibly frustrating – because it is about four (or five, if you count the dog) main characters who almost never speak honestly to each other. I can think of one time in the show where Spike talks honestly to one of the other members of the main cast, and it was so shocking to me that I was chilled to the bone. Chilled, I say!

    -I love all the commentary you have about the music. More, please!


  2. RiderIon #

    A response to your episode 5 recap: Spike is being a dick within the context of the show for insulting Faye’s singing. However, it’s more of a 4th wall joke as Faye’s Japanese voice actress is Megumi Hayashibara, who is a popular Japanese songtress, voice actor and pop culture icon. The joke doesn’t really carry over into the English dub as Wendee Lee, while talented, isn’t on the same level as Ms. Hayashibara.

    I view the reason the writers’ hold back information (both plot detail as well as denying viewer expectations) is that Cowboy Bebop is a juxtaposition of two common anime genres: the typical seinen and slice-of-life. We get the drama and violene that comes from the seinen genre’s target demographic (males 18-40). We also get the observation of Spike and Jet’s regular lives as the bounties they chase ultimately don’t tie into storyline of Spike’s past. Their lives are much more exciting as they’re space bounty hunters but it’s still an average day for them. Your example of the ending of Stray Dog Strut fits into place quite well in this aspect. We don’t always have the epic kung fu battle with our nemesis. Some times you just never confront them, some times they get arrested for pet trafficking. Life’s weird that way.


  3. stokes OTI Staff #

    @Mlawski – Very interesting! I would not have put episodes 1 and 5 in the same category, but you’re right that 1 is way more dour than 2, 3, or 4. And I’m totally with you on the lighter episodes being the “filler” around the “real plot” that takes place in the serious episodes… the serious episodes are sort of definitionally where the “real” plot of a serial TV show takes place, even if the lighter ones are better overall (for which see Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I’m wondering, though, whether Cowboy Bebop is trying to turn this on its head somewhat, and argue that rather than focusing on some grand revenge narrative you should just kick back, eat some sauteed bell peppers, and play fetch with your super-intelligent Corgi. This is sort of the position that Bilbo Baggins takes at the beginning of the Hobbit, right? “Plot development? Drama? Oh, no, not for me. We don’t want any of that here, thank you. Wouldn’t you rather have some nice seed cake?”

    @Riderlon – Cool to know! I never would have gotten that joke. So is Hayashibara basically a singer who gets voice acting work as a stunt, the way that Miley Cyrus might over here? Or is she just a voice actress who is also a successful singer? If it’s the latter, that’s astonishing… although I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that the status of voice actors is different in Japan than it is in the states, given that the status of animation as a whole is so different.
    As to whether Cowboy Bebop can be seen as a slice of life drama… I’m a little hesitant to agree. It seems a little too packed with incident. Shouldn’t there be episodes where they just take the day off and do their laundry? (Not that any of them seem to own another set of clothes.) Or entire episodes where they’re just lounging around the ship en route to the next planet? But maybe I don’t quite understand what you mean by the term slice of life… is it really a well-defined anime genre? What would be the textbook example?


  4. RiderIon #

    @stokes Ms. Hayashabira started off as a singer but eventually started doing roles as a voice actress for anime. She still does release new singles and albums every few years but she’s becoming more well known for her voice acting than her singing (especially in the West). She also still has a radio show if memory serves. She really has become something of a pop culture icon as opposed to just a singer/voice actress. According to her wikipedia page, she was also a licensed nurse at one point so she seems to be an all around success if you ask me.

    Slice of life by definition is just a look into the daily life of our characters and examine what happens to them. It often includes some kind of observation on life or society and rarely has an overarcing plot. The pinnacle American example is the sitcom Seinfeld. Japanese anime and manga have two very distinct flavors of the genre: mundane and fantastical.

    The mundane variety tends to be populated with comedies such as Azumanga Daioh (high school girls), Genshiken (college otaku), Crayon Shin-chan (5 year old boy’s antics) and Maison Ikkoku (boarding house tenets). Some have an overarching storyline while others are purely episodic. The fantastical variety tends to be populated with more drama such as Planetes (astronauts), Patlabor (mecha pilot), Kiki’s Delivery Service (witches) and The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi (which is a comedy despite its title). I’ve heard arguments for Ranma 1/2 and Neon Genesis Evagelion as slice of life but I’m not willing to label them as such. Check out one of each type and you’ll have a good idea of what the genre consists of.

    Cowboy Bebop gives us a fantastical flavor of the genre. We observe Jet and Spike’s life as bounty hunters in space. The series is fairly episodic as outside of the episodes dealing with the crew’s checkered pasts. We also get very notable observations on life and society. The first is that even with advanced technology, humanity is very much the same.We still have terrorists, organized crime and smugglers that exist today although their means are more science fiction. The second observation is that being a bounty hunter sucks. You’re always out of money between repairs, fines and feeding yourself. You’re in constant danger even with the most mundane tasks. I would not enjoy being a space cowboy one bit.


  5. stokes OTI Staff #

    So… okay, I’m still confused. Isn’t any serial just a look into the daily lives of its characters? If you can have a slice-of-life show about mecha pilots, can you argume that Lost is a slice-of-life show about people stuck on a mysterious island? Is The Wire a slice-of-life show about the drug trade? Is Dexter a slice-of-life show about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers? Is the Illiad a slice-of-life poem about the Trojan War? They do all describe the events that — however interesting they seem from the outside — make up the protagonists’ daily lives, and all of them provide social commentary.

    But you gave me a good long list of titles (for which thanks!), so probably I should just watch some of them and get back to you if I’m still confused.


  6. RiderIon #

    @stokes Slice of Life is pretty hard to define and I explained it to the best of my ability (which really isn’t that great). One of the main characteristics (in my mind) is the lack of an overall important narrative. The Illaid and The Odyessey tell an overall stories of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ return home from the War. there’s a narrative there despite it just being a day in the life of Odysseus.

    I’ll use Crayon Shin-chan as an example seeing as I’ve seen all of what’s been released in the US. Each episode is essentially standalone. No narrative is being told and we just see the hilarious antics of Shin. There are multipart episodes but they don’t affect the narrative setup which is Shin is 5, goes to school and drives his parents and teachers insane. The status quo is maintained at the end of the day.

    Cowboy Bebop does this with its story. New characters are introduced but regardless of the success of this week’s chase, the status quo isn’t changed. Even when we do get a serious episode dealing with Jet, Spike or Faye’s past we get some character development with [my mouth staying shut to avoid spoilers].

    The other issue is how non-slice of life anime do this for character development. They take a break from the action and shift tone to expand on someone’s backstory via a slice of life episode. Bleach is a big example of it from what I’ve been told.


  7. Jonathan #

    I think Riderlon has a point in that there actually are a number of scenes where the characters are just waiting for something to happen. An argument could be made that the first scenes on the ship with the bell peppers and the kung fu are of this type. I seem to think there’s an episode later where Jet is fishing off the Bebop while waiting for laundry to dry. These daily activities are the true keys to understanding the characters: Jet grows Bonsai; Spike practices Jeet Kune Do.

    At the same time, I disagree with Riderlon’s suggestion that Cowboy Bebop is largely a slice of life drama since it does have an overarching narrative. It is ‘going somewhere,’ but it takes its sweet time getting there. The closer you get to the end, the fewer side episodes you have until it’s all about the backstories and the choices these characters make about whether they will continue in the life they’ve led.


  8. RiderIon #

    I say it’s a juxtaposition of seinen and slice of life genres. We have the standlone bounty episodes that don’t really tie into the oerall backstory. We also have sequences and entire episodes featuring realistic violence, adult situations and humor along with flat out depressing issues that people deal with like Post Traumatic Stress, addiction and betrayal that are common to seinen anime and manga like Berserk, Battle Royale and Noir.


  9. Jonathan #

    @Riderlon: Yes, I understood that, but I disagree with the idea that it is a juxtaposition of the two groupings (I hesitate to say genres for reasons I’ll mention later). I agree wholeheartedly with the seinen elements (Black Lagoon being the closest in terms of content, style, and presentation), but I think that the slice of life elements, which I agree exist, only serve to further characterization rather than being juxtaposed with seinen.

    Further, the fact that many of the bounty hunting episodes are among the darkest episodes suggests that they, while part of everyday life, are equally seinen in nature. In addition, some episodes that tie in to the main storyline do begin with apparently unrelated bounties. There isn’t always a clear line between episodes that delve into character stories and episodes that are just them doing their job.

    I also disagree that The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is from the slice of life genre. I believe it to be a very different animal all together.

    Of course, I think it’s silly to say that something is ‘seinen’ as a genre since it’s a grouping that includes such diverse series as Elfen Lied, Detroit Metal City, Mushishi, and Mahoromatic. Four VERY different series that I would say fall in very different genres.

    @Stokes: While it is true that everything works out for the worst here, not everything does. They win some and they lose some. I think that’s an important thing to consider. they will succeed with some bounties later.


  10. Wraith #

    This will be a bit of a long comment on the slice-of-life genre, since I don’t think Cowboy Bebop really fits. Of course, that’s my definition, and it is definitely one of the nebulous ones that will receive ten different answers from ten different people.

    Personally, I’d say Cowboy Bebop is primarily an action series. Sure, there’s comedy and drama and character exploration and so on, but the main focus is on the action. It has some slice-of-life elements, but both drama and comedy can get bigger impact if the audience has some kind of connection with the characters, and slice-of-life is one method for creating that. But every single episode has some kind of major action that’s central to the story. Even Toys in the Attic, or the more comedic than most Mushroom Samba.

    A lot of the series mentioned above I would classify as primarily sit-coms. This is a genre that most anime fans seem to have forgotten about. ^_^ They may focus on the every-day life of the characters, but it’s the “wacky and zany” life. Or, frequently in the Japanese case, the “cute and cuter” daily life. They have to keep up the constant stream of jokes, so we get the funny incidents. Granted, the characters seem to have a lot _more_ of them than most people, but the focus is on these moments, not on typical every-day life.
    Incidentally, I think that’s one of the reason so many otaku got upset with the chocolate coronet scene in Lucky Star. That kind of tangential conversation does happen, but it isn’t the kind of constant set-up, punch-line, set-up, punch-line they were expecting.

    If you want a good example of slice-of-life, check out Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. Unfortunately, it isn’t officially available in English, and isn’t likely to be (unless Vertical’s upcoming release of Twin Spica does very well, in which case it’ll have a slim chance of being licensed).
    It’s the “purest” slice-of-life story I know of. Sure, there are comedic and dramatic moments, and even actiony moments (the hurricane, for instance). But they’re not dominant or even primary elements.
    For instance, one chapter involves the main character, Alpha, doing the following: She wakes up, putters around the house, makes coffee, and falls asleep waiting for customers. That’s it. There’s around three lines of dialogue in the entire chapter, all her speaking out loud to herself. No action, drama, or forced comedy. And it works. It takes a good storyteller, but they can do it.

    This kind of thing is very different from the kind of thing shounen action manga like Bleach do. Those do sometimes break from the main story to follow/explore the characters, but it’s so they can power up (over 9000!) or show dramatic tragic pasts.
    As far as Cowboy Bebop goes, they’re bounty hunters. Their daily life is full of exciting adventures. Even the quiet moments are usually tied in with this. Spike goes toe-to-toe with criminals frequently, so he practices Jeet Kun Do in his spare time. Not that it doesn’t, or can’t, have slice-of-life elements, they’re just very minor ones.
    Action and Sci-Fi definitely come to mind when you mention the series. Slice-of-life, not so much.

    I’ll add that slice-of-life seems to be a particularly Japanese thing. America just doesn’t have an equivalent. It isn’t a particularly common genre, but it does show up outside anime and manga. Yasujiru Ozu made some great slice-of-life movies. He’s got comedies and dramas as well, but for things available in English (Criterion carries several of his films) this is your best bet.

    To finish, I’ll reiterate that this is a very undefined genre. Everyone is going to have slightly different views on it, and Riderlon’s view seems pretty common. This one is just mine, not any kind of “official” view.
    But for me, of the series mentioned above, only Genshiken has any kind of significant slice-of-life element. Maison Ikkoku is more a romance/comedy. Azumanga Daioh is more sit-com, etc. It’s just very rare for this to be the, or even a, dominant element in a published-for-profit story. By nature, it’s hard to have any kind of gauge on how successful they’ll be before you actually try to sell them. Publishers will rarely want to take that risk. Even Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou has some elements (the data transfer, for instance) early on that are obviously meant to increase its saleability. Luckily it was popular enough that Ashinano has apparently been given enough freedom with his new series, Kabu no Isaki, to not have to pander.


  11. CKS #

    IIRC Ms. Hayashibara (she used to have her own manga detailing her life) was a trainee nurse when she was “talent-spotted” to be a seiyuu. Later on she branched into music; very common among seiyuus in Japan.

    Azumanga Daioh = “Seinfeld” with girls


  12. Andie #

    I’m gonna nitpick a few of your points in the Discipline section…

    “Consider the stuff they keep back:

    • We don’t get to see Katerina shooting Solensan (we just see the aftermath)”

    I think this is simply more dramatic, and not that a unique way to show a shooting.

    “• We don’t get to know why Ein is so important”

    I honestly think this was lazy writing, not a conscious choice of Reveal versus Conceal. Even if you’re suggesting the Reveal versus Conceal conceit as a byproduct rather than the creators’ conscious choice, what is the point? What does it add to the series and your enjoyment of it?

    “ We don’t get to see Spike and Faye’s poker game (instead, we get an oblique montage of casino-related imagery)”

    This I can see fitting your pattern.

    “• We don’t get to see the Space Warriors turning into apes (we just cut away after the vial shatters)”

    I feel like this was to save time and $$.

    “• We don’t get to know what motivates Vicious’ power play within the crime syndicate”

    And I hate this! I’m only on episode 10 so I hope this changes.

    “• And hey, while we’re on the subject of character motivations, we don’t get a reliable one of these for ANY of the main characters, at least not yet.”

    I’m hoping this is more of a symptom of early episodes than anything else.


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